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Happygrams Never Go Out of Style

Long before there was Twitter or Instagram or Facebook or any other online social media, there was the PDS Happygram. And while the social media electronic communication fads come and go, the decades-old Happygram is as popular as ever with teachers and students at PDS.

“It’s a long, long tradition,” says Mark Fruitt, Elementary Principal. “They’re mostly words of affirmation for a boy for a great job in chapel or for a kindness toward another student or for good behavior in the hallway or for being a good servant leader.”

“It’s not a carrot and it’s not something to earn. It’s just a short note on a small piece of yellow paper with a smiley face. One design. My favorite thing about them is to see that light go on, when a boy realizes that an adult took the time to write this about him. It’s the power of words.”

"My favorite thing about them is to see that light go on, when a boy realizes that an adult took the time to write this about him. It’s the power of words."

The Happygram is a PDS tradition every bit as much as the Christmas Pageant, the speech contest, Yipes Stripes, and the student-faculty basketball game. The short, to-the-point Happygrams were the idea of Dr. Len Sumner, PDS head of school from 1979 to 2000, who saw the appreciative messages as morale builders not only for students but also for teachers.

“It is human nature that as things go well we say nothing,” Dr. Sumner said in a PDS Spirit magazine article in 2011. “When things don’t go so well, we complain about it. So people need to know the good side of things and be reminded of how much we care for them and value them, boys and teachers alike.”

Sixth-grade teacher Jean Nabers remembers those days well. “It put a smile on your face to see one in your box,” she says of Dr. Sumner’s short messages of gratitude. “We have Happygram parties for the classes and individual rewards as well. A collection of 50 would earn a dress-down day, perhaps. Every grade is different on their rewards.”

Mrs. Nabers adds that the impact of the Happygrams was apparent. “I had a student in 1983, Brandon Williams ’85, who had them up on a bulletin board in his room,” she recalls. “He was very proud of them. He later became a surgeon at Vanderbilt.”

While a single Happygram could make a boy’s week, sometimes they came in bunches.

“My fondest memory of PDS Happygrams was from first grade when I won the Martha Hooper Scholarship award,” says Scott Anderson ’86, an executive with Wunderlich Securities, Inc. “I actually received about six Happygrams from various teachers and principals, so by far it is one of my favorite PDS memories.”

"My favorite thing about them is to see that light go on, when a boy realizes that an adult took the time to write this about him. It’s the power of words."

"My favorite thing about them is to see that light go on, when a boy realizes that an adult took the time to write this about him. It’s the power of words."

Since 1949 when the school was founded, PDS has more than 3,300 alumni. That makes for a lot of Happygrams – and happy grads.

“I remember getting a Happygram was a very big deal,” says Ben Daniel ’80, a Memphis attorney. “I’m sure former head of schools Mr. Stanford and Dr. Sumner knew of some detailed, over my head, psychological research on how it would motivate young boys, but all I knew was it worked.”

Windy and Kirby May have a unique perspective on the effects of Happygrams. Kirby ’88 received them as a student, and Windy hands them out as a PDS math teacher. “The students love earning Happygrams and working to a goal,” says Windy, who teaches 5th grade. “We have class Happygram parties if they get 30 as a class. If they get 15, they get candy bars. Happygrams are hanging in their lockers. We give them out when students have shown growth and have been a good friend.”

As do many former PDS students, Kirby still has his Happygrams filed away at home. “Each of my teachers at PDS not only taught the material for each class, but also taught us many life lessons,” says Kirby, a prosecutor in the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office. “The teachers emphasized character, conduct, attitude and behavior. These attributes are just as important as the material learned in class. These Happygrams simply reinforced and encouraged us to do what is right, to do our best, and to have the right attitude.”

Former PDS mother Emily Freeburg Kay might deserve a Happygram of her own for her organizational skills. She had not one, but three sons – Harvey ’95, Charlie ’98 and Henry ’00 – who attended PDS. That’s a lot of Happygrams to keep track of.

“I still have every Happygram they ever received in scrapbooks I made for each of them, amongst other childhood memories, that I presented them after high school,” she recalled in a recent Facebook post. “Some of the reasons for the Happygrams are quite creative, but my boys were proud every time, and they love looking back over seven years of these confidence boosters.”

Although the tradition does not follow PDS students to their next schools, they’re really never too old to receive a Happygram. Beau Davidson ’93 returned to his alma mater three years ago to speak to the students and performed a duet with Mrs. Nabers, just as they had done some 20 years earlier when they both had starring roles in the Christmas Pageant. He has fond memories of the Happygrams he received as a student, many of them from his former teacher, Mrs. Nabers.

“I received some for musical performances, good conduct, personal achievement and things of that sort,” recalls Davidson, 33, now a performer, songwriter, and actor in Nashville. “I personally really enjoyed getting them because it meant that a teacher recognized my merit, whether it was an academic or personal achievement. “Furthermore, it was a bit of a feather in your cap because your fellow students were aware you had received one as well. It was a great tradition.”

Mrs. Nabers enjoyed having her former student return and to express her appreciation she sent Davidson a thank you note. It was a Happygram, of course. Davidson proudly posted it on Facebook and added it to his collection.

Says his former teacher: “Some traditions are worth keeping.”